Several recent DVD releases have enabled me to revisit my childhood—and adolescence—and it’s been a blissful time trip. Some of the shows I enjoyed back then have held up quite well, none more so than Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran & Ollie. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to check out the series on video, but I’ve just spent some time with Volume 3, which includes 24 complete episodes from different periods in the run of the show (starting in 1949, winding up in 1957) as well as some terrific bonus features.
Puppets were a mainstay of early television but Tillstrom, like some other talented performers, didn’t think of himself as a children’s entertainer. (One amusing episode features Oliver J. Dragon as a “television consultant” who has pointed opinions about the medium.) His characters are warm and sincere but engage in wisecracks and non-kiddie humor. Their human friend Fran Allison is a paragon of kindness, a sunny presence who addresses us at home as well as her colorful costars. Even when Tillstrom breaks the fourth wall by acknowledging that the Kuklapolitan Players are part of a television show—as when they audition a new announcer, or talk to their off-screen musical director—the illusion is never shattered. These aren’t puppets: they’re real, a wonderful cast of characters worth watching and believing in.
Viewing these shows from the 1950s reveals both the primitive nature of live television and the magic that gifted performers could create with the simplest means. It’s particularly fun to watch Kukla and Ollie do “live” commercials for their sponsors, which include Sealtest, Nabisco, Silvercup Bread, and RCA Victor.
Among the bonus features on Volume 3 are fascinating home movies (some in color) taken by the show’s longtime director, Louis Gomavitz. We get to see Kukla, Fran & Ollie making personal appearances in Chicago, riding in a parade, and rehearsing for a number of special broadcasts in New York with an impressive lineup of human [guest] stars including Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Perry Como, Yul Brynner, Ethel Merman, and Irene Dunne. On the audio track we can listen to a revealing interview with Burr Tillstrom from the 1980s in which he discusses his philosophy and the workings of the show. This material is irresistible, especially if—like me—you have fond memories of this endearing program.
When I got older I got hooked on music and variety shows, and I have crystal-clear memories of Edie Adams’ ABC series Here’s Edie from the early 1960s. I thought she was incredibly sexy—and I was right, although revisiting her memorable commercials for Muriel Cigars I now see that she was parodying the overt sexiness of women like Marilyn Monroe. Adams’ son Josh Mills has gathered all of her specials and subsequent series for a four-disc release from Shout! Factory, which comes with an informative booklet and reminiscences from some of Edie’s colleagues. The first season’s worth of specials are somewhat self-conscious in their artiness, but that’s what made them so striking and original, a hallmark of innovative director Barry Shear. We also see how he experimented with the still-new medium of videotape.
One of the best specials was recorded “live” at Harrah's in Las Vegas. Edie sings, does impressions, and persuades Eddie Fisher, seated in the audience, to join her onstage (which was almost certainly planned, but seems spontaneous). Talk about capturing a moment in time! Guest stars on other episodes constitute an eclectic array of performers from the worlds of popular music, jazz, and even opera, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Count Basie, Dick Shawn, Bobby Darin, Buddy Hackett, Lauritz Melchior, André Previn, Stan Getz, Spike Jones, Bob Hope, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, to name just a few. I remember watching some of these shows the first time around, and never dreamed I’d have a chance to see them again.
Edie Adams deserves to be remembered and this DVD release stands as a loving tribute. Mills has even included a number of song segments from Ernie Kovacs’ 1950s daytime series, further evidence that Edie was a truly gifted vocalist. Watch and enjoy.
Finally, on the subject of television, I can’t explain how strange it is to drive by the NBC studios in Burbank and no longer see the network’s name on the building that faces Alameda Avenue. With the departure of Jay Leno and the transfer of NBC News to a new home on the Universal lot a mile or so away, the famous facility is now a rental operation. For a fascinating historical overview of the studio, with wonderful video clips, click HERE.